Although Qatar is yet to establish itself as a leisure hub the state has already earned itself a reputation for staging top-end MICE events.
"Our MICE business is very strong, but less traditional in its set up than in other Gulf destinations," explains Daniela Grendene, director of marketing & communications at Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA).
"Much is private government-driven and generally throughout the year we stage high-level meetings and conferences."
Grendene says the challenge has been the lack of facilities catering to the Meetings Industry: "We don't have sufficient hotel rooms to expand this sector, but of course, that will change soon," she adds.
Fortunately, several hotels will open their doors in Doha next year, while a new Convention Centre is being built within the Qatar Foundation (education city) premises that will seat 7000.
Our MICE business is very strong, but less traditional in its set up than in other Gulf destinations.
"We don't have many more details unfortunately, because no company has been appointed yet to manage it, although there was a tender and I believe a company will be announced soon," explains Grendene.
In addition, the current Qatar International Exhibition Centre will soon move to new enlarged premises for a temporary two-year period until a brand new exhibition centre is built. Both centres are due for completion by 2009.
According to Grendene, Qatar reported 960,000 arrivals last year, 90% of which visited on business.
"We think that between five and eight percent were meetings related," she says.
Looking ahead, Grendene notes that Qatar does not wish to be a mass-market destination in terms of leisure and MICE visitors. Instead, the country will focus on three key areas for development; the oil and gas industry, education, and sport, and MICE business related to these is therefore expected to increase.
"The conferences, events and meetings are likely to be more significant than incentives because we will continue to be a more business-orientated destination," says Grendene.
In the absence of a formal conference centre, The Ritz-Carlton Doha has become one of the Qatari capital's prime conference and meetings venues.
"The Qatar Foundation brings in people from all over the world to hold meetings here, as well as Shell (oil) in Qatar and car companies staging launches," explains hotel manager, Thierry Grandsire. "MICE is not quite developed in Qatar yet, but it's a market we are looking for and it's starting little by little."
The property's director of sales, Raki Phillips, has therefore restructured the sales team to drive MICE business.
"We realised that our sales team was good at getting the [MICE] business, but once this business was in, they were still involved in the organising. That meant that during a four-day conference we had a good sales person still dealing with that conference instead of being out on the road selling," he explains.
"We therefore established a group desk to deal with group and conference bookings. That means that once the sales person gets the business and the client has signed the contract, it gets handed over to the group desk and the sales person can get back out on the road."
The group desk comprises a group manager, a group sales analyst that deals with reports, contracting, and payments, and a group coordinator who works with the hotel's conference and catering team.
Phillips claims that since this structure was implemented, sales across the board have increased: "The guys are now out there selling, not dealing with conference details," he says.
The hotel's sophisticated booking system, ‘Opera', which it has inherited from Ritz-Carlton's parent company, Marriott International, has also helped boost sales as it allows staff to make group "book groups and blocks".
Opera not only shows meeting space availability, but colour codes according to whether a space reserved is for a prospective client, a tentative booking (offer made) or a definite booking (contract signed), are also integrated into the system.
The Ritz-Carlton Doha's MICE business is split into two segments - corporate and government - and 60% is sourced locally in Doha, with the remaining 40% primarily sourced from the GCC, particularly Bahrain (finance-related) and Abu Dhabi (oil and gas-related).
Phillips says he expects business to trickle in from the US now that Qatar Airways has introduced direct services to Washington DC and New York.
More than 2000m² of meeting, conference and banqueting facilities are available at The Ritz-Carlton Doha, including the Al Wosail and Al Mukhtasar ballrooms and six lavishly decorated meeting rooms.
The hotel is the preferred venue for Qatar Foundation's MICE requirements and has also staged a number of high-profile events including star-studded charity extravaganza, Reach Out to Asia.
Phillips says the property's competitors are the Sheraton and The Four Seasons, but that the "one thing that's different in the Qatar market" is that every hotel is a rival due to the limited hotel stock at present: "We all compete against each other, but this will change next year when more hotels open, driving growth in inventory of around 160%" he says.
The F&B aspect of the hotel's MICE bookings is handled by assistant director of food and beverage, Laura Haucke, whose previous role was director of catering & conference services (CCS).
"In other hotels F&B doesn't mix with sales and marketing, but it is not like that here," she says. "The catering team gets involved with the pre-work to make sure sales and marketing are not promising something we can't offer."
Haucke is also accustomed to liaising with the region's event planners and says her team can be creative when it comes to personalising events to incorporate corporate identities and themes.
The Ritz-Carlton Doha is better placed than most of its competitors due to the large number of F&B employees at its disposal that are trained to the company's high service standards.
Haucke stresses that the property is also gearing up to stage large events and live entertainment productions having already played host to two Broadway musicals - Cats and Mamma Mia.
"Both productions were on a scale previously unseen in Doha," she says. "In both instances, we provided logistical support to the production companies, ranging from organising external power and water supplies to assisting with technical aspects behind the scenes in collaboration with our AV team."
Haucke concedes that Qatar is "a little behind" Dubai when it comes to staging major events, but is confident this aspect of the MICE industry will develop in time.
She also notes the recent influx of international event planners and "lifestyle gurus" into Doha that will lead to global companies choosing Doha as a MICE venue in future.
Sharq Village& Spa
Grandsire acknowledges that MICE customers are "looking for variety in the facilities that a hotel can offer" and claims The Ritz-Carlton Doha can live up to these expectations by also offering options at its sister Doha property - the newly opened Sharq Village & Spa: "With Sharq [opening] it's a perfect fit for the MICE market as it's a true resort," he says.
Not only that, but the property, which has been built on the site of a former pearl diving communit, in the style of an ancient Qatari village, offers a unique setting for a conference, incentive or meeting, according to the GM, Abdul Aziz Al Emadi.
"What makes us very different from the thousands of other conference venues around the world is our emphasis on traditional Qatari hospitality," he says.
"Delegates and guests will genuinely feel they have been transported back to an era when visitors were truly made to feel part of a host's family."
The property boasts 1130m² of dedicated meeting space and can accommodate up to 950 delegates in plenary or break out sessions. Its ballrooms can be transformed at night for special events while the dedicated conference team is on hand to offer off-site solutions.
In addition, the Al Hory boardroom has been built with executive retreats or small group meetings in mind and all facilities are supported by a dedicated catering and conference (CCS) team, which works closely with Sharq's F&B and sales teams.
The F&B proposition includes Al Liwan, which boasts "a magnificent buffet of regional dishes" and the recently opened Al Mahara and Al Dana seafood restaurant concept - the "first real seafood restaurant in Doha", according to the resort's F&B director, Ayman Gharieb.
Al Mahara, located on the ground floor of the two-storey building, offers a fish-market style concept, where sushi and seafood is on display and the dining experience is casual, while Al Dana, located upstairs and boasting ocean views, offers an "elegant dining" experience.
Gharieb says MICE business is picking up and highlights that in addition to Sharq's attractive F&B and conference space options, the layout of the guestrooms has proved a draw card - the 174 guestrooms are built within 14 traditional courtyard villas (beits) and each boasts a courtyard and its own personal butler.
"The concept of the villas, each with its own hospitality area (courtyard) works well," he says.
Since the property's March 10 opening there have been around 140 days when an event has been staged there, according to Sharq's director of sales, Shadi Kassem.
"Most business is coming from the government and banks, as well as press conferences and product launches," he says.
Kassem has assigned three sales staff to "blitz the [MICE] sector" and they are currently "identifying new opportunities".
He believes there is "great potential" given Qatar's interest in progressing its sports and education sectors and says the opening of the new convention and exhibition centres will grow the market.
"This year we have been targeting the local market and the GCC, but next year we will look to Europe, the US and Asia - Tokyo and Singapore - for new business," he reveals.For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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